Stop spinning, start delivering

October 22, 2004

Without a code of ethics, university marketing could sell everybody short, argues Steven Schwartz

Many years ago, as a junior reporter, I rang several companies that sold traveller's cheques. I told them I had lost my cheques and needed an "instant replacement", in line with their marketing claims.

But only American Express lived up to its promise. It is no surprise that this company completely dominates the traveller's cheque market.

You would think that the same maxim should apply to universities.

Institutions that honour their promises should prosper, the rest should just wither away. Some day this may be true, but not yet.

At present, the student market is relatively unsophisticated. To stand out from the crowd, universities have stepped up their marketing and promotional activities.

We advertise in print and in cinemas, on billboards and on the backs of buses. We target potential students with telemarketing, we use DVDs and we bring out our most attractive representatives for open days.

Yet, university marketing materials look pretty much alike. All our prospectuses feature pictures of students engaging in Platonic dialogues with kindly-looking teachers - usually outdoors, always in sunshine, even in England.

We claim to have distinguished lecturers who adore teaching; we all offer a wide selection of interesting courses; we all provide the best in sporting and recreational facilities. Needless to say, all of our graduates go on to successful careers. And I must confess that I am as guilty as anyone.

Forgive me father, for I too have "spinned".

But as readers of The Times Higher know, crusading journalists have begun to look at the more specific marketing claims.

So far, they have uncovered several cases of universities that have, at best, exaggerated the career prospects of graduates.

As the cost of a university education rises, students will be more interested in what they get for their money. UK universities are already finding that their fastest growing budget item is legal fees. Increasingly, a student's first response to dubious marketing is: "See you in court."

What we need is to make our marketing accountable. We live in times that require accountability. And you can be sure that we will be called on to justify our claims.

When that happens, the prizes will go to the institutions that are like American Express - the ones that deliver.

To ensure our marketing serves the public interest we should adopt a code of ethics. This should go beyond legal requirements to be honest - universities should eschew misleading or exaggerated claims. In short, we should engage in ethical marketing.

First, ethical marketing is accurate. Its messages are clear, truthful and do not mislead.

Second, any evidence cited, whether rankings, surveys or test results, should be valid and should support the claims being made.

Pictures should depict the institution accurately. If testimonials are used, they should be genuine and timely.

A hallmark of ethical marketing is fairness to competitors. This means that any comparisons made with other universities should be verifiable.

Finally, ethical marketing is sensitive to feedback. Complaints should be handled promptly and sensitively - and where they are found to be legitimate, restitution should be made. Students should not have to go to court. The public needs accurate information about universities. It is up to those who work in them to ensure this is fair and honest.

We need to do this for the good of students but also for the good of our institutions. Let's go beyond spin; it is time to adopt a code of marketing ethics.

Steven Schwartz is vice-chancellor of Brunel University and is leading a bid to draft a code of marketing ethics.

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